There is nothing that ignites the hobby more than a chase for a record. The level of intensity and passion depends on how revered the record is. Fifty years ago this summer, the world was glued to the greatest baseball record pursuit of all time.
In 1973, Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record created a frenzy that transcended sports. Every morning, we all stopped eating breakfast to hear the sports on the radio, or to watch the sports on the six o’ clock news. What did Hank Aaron do? How many home runs does he have? When will he break Babe Ruth’s record?
I was nine years old that summer. I was already a seasoned collector and set builder. My friends and I were all collectors. We took our stacks of cards everywhere. We all had favorite players and teams, but that summer, we were all Hank Aaron fans and collectors. There was no Beckett and no price guide. There was no internet. There was no ESPN or TSN. There were no card shows or even card shops. Our baseball cards were our connection to the game and our favorite players. And if someone pulled a Hank Aaron card out of a pack, we all wanted to see it.
It was also the first year I played competitive baseball. Before practice, we brought our cards. We traded all the time, and we all wanted Hank Aaron. There were two Aaron cards in the 1973 Topps set, as he also had a Career Total Base Leader card.
Early that year, my dad came home and told me he had some news. Every year, he took me to a Montreal Expos game. Our little border town south of Ottawa was about a two-hour drive to Jarry Park. He felt bad because the year before, we were supposed to go to an Expos-Pirates game because we wanted to see Roberto Clemente play. It poured rain and the game was postponed. I remember standing there, getting drenched, crying as hard as any eight-year-old could cry.
But this time, he got it right. He told me that he got us tickets to the game on Friday, August 17, 1973. The opponent was the Atlanta Braves. He picked that game, thinking maybe we would see history.
As the 1973 season began, Hank Aaron had 673 home runs. He would need 41 to tie Babe Ruth, and 42 to pass him on the all-time list. That was doable.
When the season began, Aaron was hitting home runs off journeymen and lesser-known pitchers, and he was hitting them against superstars. For every home run against John Andrews, Bill Grief, Don Carrithers, Gary Ross or Jack Aker, there were others against Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Jerry Reuss, Juan Marichal, Tug McGraw and Don Gullett.
As the year went on, even though Hank Aaron was on pace to break Babe Ruth’s record, we realized that August 17 was just too early in the season to see history. Aaron was crushing home runs in the first half of the season. He hit number 700 off Ken Brett of the Phillies on July 21, 1973. With more than two months left, Aaron needed only 14 home runs, and he had already hit 27.
But then his bat went cold.
We had the same conversation over and over that summer. It was the same conversation with my dad and uncle, with my friends, and with my coaches.
“Do you think Hank is going to do it? How many Hank Aaron cards do you have? Who do you think he will hit the home run against?”
We got to the game in plenty of time. An Expos game at Jarry Park was different. The fans sang, vendors threw bags of peanuts to guests 50 feet away. On this night, there were 23,821 of us cheering when Hank Aaron came up to bat. That was a big crowd for the little pop-up stadium that housed the Expos before Olympic Stadium opened.
Expos ace Steve Renko struck out Hammerin’ Hank in the second, and then Aaron popped to catcher and Expos fan favorite John Boccabella in the fourth (I can still hear the entire crowd joining the public address announcer. “Maintenant a frappé, now batting, le receveur, the catcher, John, Bock-a-bellllll-ah!!!”).
Aaron faced Renko for a third time, leading off the sixth. Crack! The ball went over the fence in left-center, about 15 rows back. Although the solo shot gave the Braves a 2-1 lead, the Montreal crowd gave him a huge ovation.
The Montreal Expos Museum posted what looks like home movie footage from someone sitting close to home plate at Jarry Park that night.
The Expos won the game. Nobody left the game early, as everyone wanted to see another Aaron at bat. The Braves scored five runs in the ninth, but the Expos walked it off with three in the bottom of the ninth for an 8-7 win. Only in baseball can the greatest home run hitter of all-time get shown up by a two-run walk-off single by journeyman and utility infielder Bernie Allen, who appeared in the 1973 Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets as a Yankee before he was dealt to Montreal.
We went home happy. We saw an Aaron home run, and the Expos won a thriller. The following night, Aaron went deep again, hitting number 704 against young rookie Steve Rogers. We watched the game on our new color TV, even though it was only broadcast in French.
Looking back at the 1973 Topps baseball set, the Atlanta Braves were loaded. There was so much focus on Aaron that few people even remember, or for that matter realized, that he was third on the team in home runs despite hitting 40. Davey Johnson hit 43 and Darrell Evans hit 41. Willie Stargell of the Pirates led the league with 44. The thing that stands out about Aaron’s 1973 card is the poor photo choice. It’s an actionless action shot of Aaron catching a fly ball.
For a player on the cusp of breaking Major League Baseball’s marquee record for home run prowess, that photo is a head scratcher.
Collecting Hank Aaron
There is little doubt that interest in Hank Aaron cards will jump early next season as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of home run number 715 in April. If you don’t have any Aaron cards in your collection or if you would like to get serious about Aaron, there is something for every price point and every investment level.
Like many stars of the 1950s and 1960s, Aaron had a few dozen cards while he played and then a few thousand cards after he retired. His rookie card, of course, is 1954 Topps #128, though he did have an Exhibit photo and a team-issue postcard before that. The Aaron rookie card is one of the key cards in the 1954 set, along with RC’s of Al Kaline and Ernie Banks.
The 1954 set is known for its design and multiple use of photos, with a large headshot, a clipped image of an action shot in the bottom left corner, and a facsimile signature in the bottom right corner.
Prices for Aaron rookies vary greatly, based on condition.
Rather than a predictable list of “Here are Hank Aaron’s 10 most valuable cards”, I thought I would just run through some of the Aaron cards that are my favorites.
1958 Topps World Series Batting Foes
This is not just Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron together on one card. This is two of the greatest players of all time, posing together for a photo before squaring off in one of the greatest World Series ever played. Okay, so nerd alert, I have a VHS tape of the official 1957 World Series film from that year.
I love cards that have meaning or are tied to a moment, and this one is perfect. The Braves won that series in seven games. Aaron his .393 with 11 hits, three home runs and seven RBIs in the series. Believe it or not he was not the MVP. Lew Burdette pitched three complete games, winning all three, two shutouts, and an 0.67 ERA.
You can own one in reasonably good shape for a few hundred dollars.
1959 Topps Fence Busters
There are two variations of this card, featuring Aaron and teammate Eddie Matthews. There is a lighter back, and a darker gray back. One of the reasons that I loved O-Pee-Chee baseball cards growing up in Canada was that the card backs were lighter and easier to read, as well as being bilingual. This is a budget friendly card of two post-War era icons.
Eddie Matthews is an all-time great, but what I love about this card is that Matthews was Aaron’s manager with the Braves during his chase for Babe Ruth’s record. Matthews predicted that 10 years after Aaron hit number 715, three million people would say they were there.
I was not there. But I am one of the 23,821 people who claimed to see Aaron hit number 703 off Steve Renko.
1961 Post Cereal
My mom used to get so mad at me when I was a kid and I would get the scissors out to mangle to box of Honeycomb or Alpha-Bits to get the baseball card, CFL football card or whatever was on the back of the box. I would ultimately cut through the wax paper inside the cardboard box and cereal would end up all over the table and floor. I didn’t care. It was worth getting the card. These days you can own this one for what you’ll spend on your next trip to a restaurant–or less.
This Aaron card has a great design, a great photo, and reminds me of something no other card on this list does. The three-second rule.
Take your pick from the Aaron cards in the Topps sets of the 1960s and 1970s, as most are pretty great. This one is my favorite regular Aaron card as a member of the Atlanta Braves. One of the reasons is that the 1971 Topps set is one of my two favorite sets of the decade.
Just for full transparency, I am partial to this set as it is the first set I collected. At seven years old, there is no way I could complete the 752-card set. I am still working at filling in some holes and upgrading some cards that withstood the abuse I gave them.
The black borders are striking, and they make the cards extremely grade sensitive because of the flaking of the ink on the borders. The centering is hit and miss, mostly miss. But it is also the first set that featured decent action photography. Unfortunately, Topps had not figured out cropping their photos to tighten the action yet. Aaron’s card is a simple headshot with a facsimile signature.
It’s a popular card with condition sensitivity so expect to pay at least $50-$60 for a decent one.
1972 Topps In Action
Clearly, action photos that excited collectors in 1972 were judged with different criteria of what makes a great action photo now.
I always though this card was poignant though, as Aaron is circling the bases. Card #299 is Aaron’s regular card, which is the standard batting practice pose. Then the next card, #300, is the In Action card.
Though the 1972 set isn’t as attractive as the 1971 set, the design alone takes you back in time to the early 1970s and the photo conjures up that famous video of Aaron circling the bases after hitting #715 as two random fans come out of the stands to pat him on the back and he shoos them off.
1973 Topps All-Time Home Run Leaders
Earlier in the story we talked about the frenzy over card #100 of Aaron in 1973 during his chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record. It was an action shot of him catching a fly ball. It was also the first Aaron card wearing the Braves’ blue uniforms.
But card #1 of that set is a true gem. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are together on a card saluting the all-time home run leaders. This card did not really excite anyone when it came out, but the hobby was different terrain back then. Looking through my Aaron cards, this is one of my favorites because of its timeliness, and because, well, Ruth, Aaron and Mays on one card.
It was also card #1, which means kids like me had it on top of their stack of cards and it was beaten up by elastic bands. That’s one reason why better examples can be pricier than you think.
1974 Topps New All-Time Home Run King
Again, this is another card #1 and another card that was damaged by me and every other kid who kept their collection together with rubber bands.
The 1974 Topps set was another one that I loved, though I still loved the 1971 and 1975 sets more. The first card of the set was a tribute card for Aaron as the All-Time Home Run King. He had 713 career home runs after the 1973 season and went into the season one shy of tying Babe Ruth. Topps rolled the dice and made the card, assuming he was going to break the record, which he did early in the season. Better copies start at around $40 and go up.
The next several cards were all images of Aaron on Topps cards through the years. It was the first time a subset that large within a regular Topps set was devoted to one player.
1975 Topps ’74 Highlights
Once again, we’ve got a card #1 in a set featuring the guy who truly was the king of baseball during this time.
The photo is a classic batting stance shot, and Aaron is wearing the famous Braves blue jersey. The card back is designed to look like a newspaper front page, which the story of Aaron’s record-setting home run. Not being a base card, it’s a great card for a modest price.
The 1975 set was the first one I completed during the season, and as I always kept my cards in numeric order, this Aaron Highlights card that was always on top as card #1 was the first card I saw every day that summer.
Other than the 1971 Topps set, this is my favorite set and favorite design of the decade. The photo is bland, but after a trade sent Aaron back to Milwaukee to finish his career, Topps faced the challenge of picking a photo from two decades of Braves pics to place on a Milwaukee Brewers card.
The card is also special because it is his first card as a Brewer. Aaron will forever be connected to the Braves, but he will also forever be connected to Milwaukee. The fact that he got the chance to go back to where it all started and extend his career as a DH makes this card an important one. The card backs also lent themselves perfectly for career stats. We all stared at the back of Aaron’s 1975 Topps card. It was his first complete card back as the all-time home run leader.
When quantity goes up, prices go down and there are typically hundreds of them available.
1975 Topps 1957 MVPs
This card was a tribute to the 1957 season as part of the Topps 25th anniversary.
The card once again featured Aaron and Mantle, the 1957 NL and AL MVPs who faced each other in the World Series. The images on the card are of their 1957 Topps card fronts. The 1957 design is not nearly as strong as the 1952-54 designs, but it is clean and works beautifully on this 1975 card.
The card backs featured bullet points for each player on why 1957 was a great season for them. Just a cool card for a low price.
1991 Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball
Upper Deck introduced the Heroes of Baseball program in their inaugural 1989 baseball set. The set continued the next year with nine more cards, and in 1991, cards 19-27 in the installment were a tribute to Hank Aaron.
The set is a beautiful, well-done insert set that documented the highlights of Aaron’s long career, from his days in Milwaukee, to breaking the all-time home run record in Atlanta, to returning to Milwaukee and then being inducted into the Hall of Fame. There is an autographed version of the checklist card, which was the first Aaron autograph widely available in packs.
1999 Upper Deck – A Piece of History 500 Club
At a time when the memorabilia card craze was still fresh, Upper Deck released this card which remains one of the greatest vintage memorabilia cards of all time. The card had a print run of 50 and featured Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, each with a piece of game-used bat.
There was a little bit of outrage when this card was made because some collectors cringed at the thought of historical relics being destroyed to be put on cards. But the counter to that argument was that hundreds of people could have a piece of it rather than just one person.
Regardless, this card which was in Upper Deck Series 2 Baseball was one of the most talked about cards of the year. Today, they sell for very strong prices.